The African American Dance Ensemble has performed at the American Dance Festival so many times that audiences now know, by heart, the credo that its founder Chuck Davis became famous for and asked audiences to repeat after him: “Peace, love and respect – for everybody.”
So it’s only fitting that the Ensemble is featured at the All-NC program at the American Dance Festival’s Opening Night Gala on Thursday, June 15, at Durham Performing Arts Center.
Only this time the ensemble will be without their leader. Davis died at age 80 on May 14 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
Before he died, Davis planned and directed founding Ensemble member Ivy Burch in the assemblage of one more work: an excerpt from: ”Mendiani – Dance of Celebration.’’
“He had wanted a celebration dance. “We‘re celebrating ADF’s 84th season and 40th year in Durham, celebrating our company, celebrating having Baba Chuck in our life,” Ivy Burch said in a phone interview.
Davis founded the company, which revels in the rhythms of West Africa, in 1983. He told interviewers that he sought respect for African culture after he had seen a Tarzan movie rife with racism. Through his many trips to West Africa, he had come to know that culture, including its dances, and used what he had learned to honor that culture in his own choreography.
In the performance, audiences will “see” Chuck all the way to the end with some twists he would appreciate.
Ivy Burch, a founding member of the African American Dance Ensemble
Davis’ plan for the ADF piece called for using the upbeat rhythms of the “Mendiani,” an initiation dance that originated in de Gambia, West Africa, Burch said.
“It has a lively, upbeat percussion and touches you in a way that you have no choice but to celebrate,” Burch said.
One of Davis’ first works for the ensemble had included the Mendiani’s rhythms, Burch added.
The new, 8-minute dance started with six or seven dancers but wound up having 12 dancers and six musicians because everyone wanted to participate, Burch said.
“In the performance, audiences will “see” Chuck all the way to the end with some twists he would appreciate,” Burch added.
Davis had envisioned himself in the ADF performance this season, Burch said.
When ADF director Jodee Nimerichter visited Davis in his Durham home less than two weeks before he died, he had asked her: “’So, what are we doing opening night? Is there a party?,” Nimerichter recalled. But first, Davis had given Nimerichter a hug – “that wonderful hug. He asked about my children,” Nimerichter added.
“He was an amazing communicator, humanitarian, inclusive of everybody. His influence is all over. His memory will continue on,” the ADF director said.
“We can’t replace him. Those shoes will never be filled. But we’re all pulling together to make sure it [AADE] will continue,” Burch said.
And, pulling together now includes dealing with Baba Chuck’s “passing.”
“We are truly grieving,” another founding Ensemble member, Ava LaVonne Vinesett said in an email interview.
One thing that will give them the strength to carry on are the qualities of leadership and responsibility Davis had encouraged them to develop, Vinesett said.
“Clearly, we will always be committed to preserving African and African-American dance, music traditions and cross-cultural exchanges. That is who we are, but Pop-pop (Baba Chuck) would not only expect, but demand that we re-envision the role and purpose of our company and look to new ways of encouraging peace for the planet, Vinesett said.
“We all know how much Pop-pop loved Africa, but Pop-pop also loved Durham. He loved the energy and talent of the people … the richness of Durham’s history, the support for the arts … What he wanted for the world is what he wanted for Durham: enjoy the gift of life, respect each other and the planet, look for the good in people, be of service and know that the power of love is real,” Vinsett continued.
“We will continue to expand his vision because his message is even more compelling now than it was when the company first began.”
In addition to the appearance of the African American Dance Ensemble, this program also features the ADF-commissioned world premiere of “Dialogues” by Carolina Ballet artistic director Robert Weiss and resident choreographer Zalman Raffael as well as ADF debuts by JOYEMOVEMENT in the solo “Fit the Description”; Charlotte Ballet’s performance of Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16”; and tap dancers/Chapel Hill natives/NC Youth Tap Ensemble alum Elizabeth Burke and Luke Hickey’s new work “15/34,” a musical journey and tribute to their mentor Gene Medler, NC Youth Tap Ensemble founder/artistic director.
When: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, June 15
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivian St., Durham.
Cost/tickets: Prices range from $13.75 to $46 plus fees. To buy go to www.americandancefestival.org